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How Brands Are Adjusting to the Culture of TikTok

Kevin Best, Contributing Editor,

TikTok exploded in popularity last year, with over half of US consumers under 24 using the app. And with some initial uncertainty surrounding its long term stability, brands seemed to approach the boom with caution. Now that it’s clear that the platform is here to stay, brands are committing big chunks of their advertising budgets to TikTok in 2021. And they’re navigating how to authentically interact with the platform’s users.

TikTok’s motto for advertisers is “don’t make ads, make TikToks,” the takeaway message being that its younger user base doesn’t want an ad being served to them (like on Instagram), much preferring to see some of their favorite TikTok creators partner with brands in more interesting ways. The platform wisely spent last year focusing on making things as easy as possible for brands to jump in. The company launched a “TikTok for Business” instructional page back in June with all sorts of tips and advice on how brands can find success. The site asks “What is your top business need?” and lists four clickable options: Get Discovered, Produce Creative, Drive Performance, or Connect to Culture. Each one has a downloadable guide and a specific case study for how a brand succeeded in each goal.

Some tips include the importance of using music and sounds to grab the audience's attention (even to the point of suggesting having 120 beats per minute), and also to get your main message across in the first three seconds of the ad. Another key takeaway was to let the influencers take the lead on the ad content. The TikTok Creator Marketplace allows brands to peruse data and figure out which influencers could be right for their brand, with TikTok making introductions between both parties. The platform knows that its main currency is its influencers, and wants brands to seamlessly work together with the people who are already making TikTok culture what it is. TikTok recently partnered with IPG Mediabrands on a three year global creator program to help agencies and marketers do just that.

TikTok recently hosted several panels at this year’s South by Southwest, an all-online event. It was TikTok’s first time as a sponsor at the festival, and the focus of their panels was on how different brands successfully interact with users on the app. The featured brands included Ocean Spray, Arby’s, the NFL, HBO Max, Gatorade, and McDonald’s. Gatorade talked about how it began putting more advertising money into the platform because they noticed it was where young athletes were spending more and more of their time. The NFL highlighted the importance of being comfortable jumping into the comment sections to regularly interact with their fans, encouraging other brands to do the same.

Ocean Spray, perhaps the most famous brand featured organically on the app in 2020 due to the viral 420Doggface208 skateboarding videos, discussed their experience reacting to content that was already on TikTok. The juice company had its CEO post his own skateboarding video to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, and they also sent 420Dogggface208 (Nathan Apodaca) a cranberry colored pick up truck. TikTok has been eager to highlight Ocean Spray’s success, turning the phenomenon into a commercial for the app, with the tagline “it starts on TikTok.” Arby’s talked about their decision to make a special menu after a TikTok user bought a used TV that had a specific Arby's menu on its screen when he plugged it in. Neither brand was responsible for the initial TikToks that featured their products, but both were able to react quickly and build off of the momentum that was already there. Arby’s has two “social listeners” who are responsible for keeping track of anything related to their brand that happens on social media. It’s becoming increasingly clear that being able to respond quickly to unforeseen viral interest will be a key part of a brand’s TikTok success.

While every brand hopes for the lightning in a bottle moment like Ocean Spray had, most rely on hashtag challenges to get users to interact with their brand. But the future of how brands use TikTok might not be in the platform’s signature minute-long videos at all. Walmart has been partnering with the app to roll out some testing of livestream shopping functionality. Their initial event in December, The Holiday Shopalong Spectacular, focused on selling clothing that can be found in Walmart. The brand reported 7 times the views they expected and a 25% growth of their followers. They recently hosted their second event, Spring Shop Along: Beauty Edition in March. The hour-long livestream was centered around beauty products, and included TikTok influencer Gabby Morrison, who has 3.5 million followers. Morrison and other influencers gave demos of their hair and skin care routines using Walmart products that viewers could purchase directly through clickable buttons on TikTok. Walmart has said they plan on having several more live shopping events through the app, something that other brands are certain to emulate soon.

TikTok has also hinted at plans to roll out a commissions-based program with influencers, where they will get a percentage of sales of items purchased through their TikTok page. TikTok is wisely navigating protecting what makes their platform unique while simultaneously pleasing all three parties involved: the users, the content creators, and the brands that want to advertise to the former and work with the latter.


About Kevin Best

Kevin Best is a writer and film critic who lives in Los Angeles, California. He is the host of the podcast Sequel Rewrite, and is working on his first novel.


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